Around World Mythology in D&D minis: the Gorgon

Welcome to another edition of Around World Mythology In D&D Minis, in which we use the tabletop role playing game Dungeons & Dragons as a jumping off point to examine the history, mythology and evolution of some of fantasy’s most interesting and iconic creatures. Today’s subject: the gorgon, a monster so horrible that it’s very name comes from the Greek word for ‘dreadful’ (gorgos.)

This entry is going to be a little different than the others; usually I kick things off by talking about the D&D lore, and move on to mythology and popular culture from there. For this article (for reasons that will become apparent when we get to it), I’m going to do things a bit in reverse: mythology first, D&D later. So sit tight! Your patience will be rewarded.

As anyone who has ever read Greek mythology knows, a gorgon is a horrifying female creature with snakes for hair, and a gaze so terrible that it turned all who looked on them to stone. Of the three gorgons of Greek mythology–Stheno, Euryale and Medusa–two were immortal. Medusa, of course, was not, which is why Perseus was able to take her head in the famous story. (It is worth noting that some scholars believe that images of gorgon-like creatures go back as far as the neolithic era, however.)

According to the original Greek legends, Medusa and her sisters were the offspring of Phorcys and Ceto, primordial sea creatures/deities that looked something like your worst nightmare version of a merman/mermaid (they were half human, but with spiky red skin and extra arms that were actually giant crab legs.) In this original legend, Medusa and her sisters are born monsters–which makes sense, given their lineage.

Somewhere around the 5th century B.C. however, things began to change, and painters and sculptors began depicting the gorgons (and specifically Medusa herself) as beautiful, as well as terrible. This version of the creature was reinforced by the famous Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, in which he explains that Medusa was once a beautiful woman until she–like so many mortals in these stories–angered one of the gods. In this case, her sin was having sex with Poseidon (the sea god)…in the Temple of Athena. As you can imagine, this did NOT go over well with the goddess of wisdom and war. Of course, there was no chance of Athena being able to punish her lascivious uncle, so she took her anger out on Medusa, changing her hair to snakes and making her countenance so horrible that it would turn all who looked on it to stone. In this version, Stheno and Euryale retain their original lineage, which is why they are immortal. Medusa, since she was once human, is not. A rather neat way of explaining that little oddity, I think.

Gorgons were a very, very popular creature during the days of the Greeks and Romans, and one of the most common figures represented in their artwork. They even carved gorgon heads on their most important objects and building as a form of protection (this was known as a gorgoneion), much like medieval architects would add gargoyles to their churches to ward off evil spirits.

There have been many representations of gorgons in our current popular culture of course, most of them having to do with some kind of adaptation of the Perseus story. Most famously, of course, the much-beloved 1981 movie Clash of the Titans. Here, of course, Medusa’s sisters never make an appearance, and she is depicted thusly:

Certainly seems to fit. The one (major) liberty they did take in her design was, of course, the fact that the entire lower half of her body was serpentine. That doesn’t really fit the mythology, but I think it’s kind of cool nonetheless; it certainly makes her stand out more, and feel more monstrous. There was also the 2010 remake, which took many of the same design elements, but fell more on the “used to be a beautiful woman” side of the 5th century:

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I, like most other people, loathed the 2010 movie, and so we aren’t going to discuss it much. The only thing I’ll add is that people in 1981 don’t seem to have minded a topless gorgon slithering around; they covered her up in the modern movie. (Then again, she looks much more like a woman in the modern one; perhaps that accounts for it.)

My very favorite modern interpretation of her, though, is in The Lightning Thief movie. Uma Thurman plays the dark, mysterious and beautiful proprietor of a statuary shop (hah!), and reveals herself as the famous gorgon when Percy Jackson and his friends begin nosing around.

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In an absolutely hilarious take on the famous moment where Perseus looks into his mirrored shield to avoid being turned to stone, the modern Percy manages to take her head with the help of the shiny silver backing on his iPod. Classic.

Now we turn to D&D lore and this is where things get a little…odd. In the D&D universe, the creature called “gorgon” has, quite literally, zero resemblance to its mythological counterpart. Behold:

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For some clarification, I refer you to the 3.5 edition Monster Manual, page 138:

“Gorgons guard their territory fiercely. They are fond of rocky areas, especially underground labyrinths. A typical gorgon stands over 6 feet tall at the shoulder and measures 8 feet from snout to tail. It weighs about 4,000 pounds.

Gorgons are nothing if not aggressive. They attack intruders on sight, attempting to trample, gore, or petrify them. There is no way to calm these furious creatures, and they are impossible to domesticate.

Whenever possible, a gorgon begins an encounter by charging at its opponents.

Breath Weapon (Su): 60-foot cone, once every 1d4 rounds (but no more than five times per day), turn to stone permanently, Fortitude DC 19 negates. The save DC is Constitution-based.

Trample (Ex): Reflex DC 19 half. The save DC is Strength-based.”

Um…yeah. I’m not sure where THAT came from; both the mini, the stats and the combat style seem far more fitting for a minotaur than a gorgon (especially that reference to labyrinths.) There is a small nod to classical gorgons in the stone breath weapon…but a giant bull? Odd. Interestingly, although the Final Fantasy video game series usually depicts its gorgon/Medusa creatures as the snake-headed woman of mythology, the Mystic Quest iteration seems to have taken its cue right from D&D:

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Dungeons & Dragons does, of course, have an extremely gorgon-esque enemy: the medusa.

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From The Monster Manual, pg. 180:

“The medusa is a hateful, repulsive creature that petrifies living beings with its gaze. It prizes art objects, fine jewelery and wealth. It’s activities often revolve around obtaining these items.

A medusa is indistinguishable from a normal human at distances greater than 30 feet (or closer if its face is concealed.) The creature often wears garments that enhanse its body while hiding its face behind a hood or veil.

Medusas are found in nearly every climate. Some dwell in large cities, becoming active in the criminal underworld to gain their desires. A few medusas have formed robbery rings or organize smuggling cabals.

[In combat] a medusa tries to disguise its true nature until the intended target is within range of its petrifying gaze, using subterfuge and bluffing games to convince the target that there is no danger. It uses normal weapons to attack those who avert their eye or survive its gaze, while its poisonous snakes strike at adjacent opponents.”

That’s more like it! D&D is the first place (I’m aware of) where the name of the single gorgon (Medusa) became an overarching term for gorgon-like creatures as a whole. Amusingly, D&D has created an entire race called the medusa, even going so far as to clarify the fact that, contrary to popular belief, not all medusa are female–there are male medusa, called maedar.

I would not be at all surprised if D&D, and it’s artwork and minis, heavily influenced the linkage in popular culture between Medusa (and gorgons), bows and arrows, and stealth. Clash of the Titans in particular seems to have cribbed heavily from this.

Speaking of cribbing, Final Fantasy stole something else: the idea of calling gorgon-like creatures medusas instead of gorgons. Observe, the original Final Fantasy medusa:

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Of course, there were also the pallet-swapped Green Medusas (later changed to Earth Medusa in the remakes.) The fact that the stronger medusas are associated with a specific element is interesting, and seems to tie into the D&D idea that they can be found in nearly every climate.

So! From Greek and Roman mythology, to an odd detour through the land of Theseus and his Minotaur, to a race of medusas and several famous movies. While the confusion between Medusa (as a character) and the monster she and others are supposed to be (a gorgon) kind of irritates and confounds me, so many wonderful and well-established purveyors of fantasy have passed on and modified this conceit that I’m ready to make peace, and simply accept it. And quite frankly, what is NOT awesome about the idea of a medusa living in town, disgusing herself as human, and leading a band of criminals? Can’t argue with awesome.

Next time: either the hydra, or the minotaur. Once again, I’ll solicit requests in the comments. In fact, if you have a monster other than that that you’d rather hear about, I’ll take that under advisement too!

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12 responses to “Around World Mythology in D&D minis: the Gorgon

  1. I once saw a show on greek mythology that siad exacty what you did here, with a few more details: Madusa was a priestess of Athena, and was raped by Poseidon for her good looks (Greek thoughts on this subject [acording to what I remeber of that show] “it’s the woman’s falt for being so beautifull.”)
    P.S. sorry but I can’t remeber what this show was called, they coverd alot of Greek myths in great detail.

    • Ah damn, I knew the ‘raped by Poseidon’ version of the myth, but COMPLETELY forgot about it. (Probably blocked it out of my head because Athena my favorite of the Greek gods, and what she did to Medusa is pretty despicable under those circumstances.) Thanks very much for the reminder, though. Great point.

  2. The fourth edition of D&D had an interesting idea about maedar, I thought. See, in 4E, the maedar’s glare doesn’t petrify, it corrupts, poisoning the victim’s mind and body. I thought that was an interesting idea. Feels… symbolically resonant, I think. Particularly if you go with the idea that the original Medusa was a rape victim.

    … it’s also interesting to note that while the 4E medusa is immune to her own kind’s petrifying gaze, she is not immune to the hateful, corrosive gaze of her male counterpart.

    • Oh wow, how interesting. I’ve not gotten into the 4E myself–I’m a 3.5 loyalist–but that really is quite cool. A neat way to both vary the enemies, and create a little more diversity among species. Neat!

  3. Remind me of Heroes of Might and Magic 3, the first game where I encountered medusas. They where the archers of the Dungeon faction. Looked very much like the Medusa from that picture from Clash of the Titans. There where also gorgons, though oddly enough, they where also scaled bulls. Then again, HoMM3 did take a couple of cues from DnD.

  4. Oh, also! While that bizarre bull-like gorgon seems to have come out of nowhere, it actually predates the Industrial Revolution. Quoth one member of Gygax and Arneson’s original circle,

    “Actually, the metallic bull that breathes turns you to stone with its breath is from an old medieval bestiary, I forget which one.

    So, yes, somebody swiped the name Gorgon and made up a dumb monster about it, but it wasn’t Gary and Dave.

    It’s old, so it’s “traditional”. ;)”

    And old it certainly is. The bull-like gorgon can be traced back at least as far as Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607). I don’t know if it originated there; the next secondary source I could find online used what looks like a direct quote from that text, and my half-hour of Googling didn’t give up any other obvious precedent (although a real historian, or basically anyone knowledgeable about medieval bestiary weirdness, could almost certainly do better). The linked excerpt is odd enough that I kind of want to blame it all on Topsell, but that sounds like wishful thinking to me…

  5. I decided to check in since it’d been a while. I’m glad to see you were finally able to finish it.

    A few points:
    * The gorgon as a stone bull has been used several times in the 2D Castlevanias like Symphony of the Night and its descendents.
    * Medusa being an archer was used in the NES game Battle of Olympus (ought to give it a play some time).

    I didn’t know there was a Greek creature named Ceto, but I’d wager where we get the word Cetacean from (pertaining the the whale family).

    And lastly a typo notification:
    “Of course, there was no chance of Athena being able to punish her lascivious uncle, so she took her anger out on Medusa, changing her hair to snakes and making her continence so horrible that it would turn all who looked on it to stone.”

  6. Hawke it’s almost the end of the week! you need to post or your once a week promess will be broken in less then 2 weeks, and that would be sad 😥

  7. very interesting indeed. why do people have to screw up mythology like they did with the gorgons being bulls. it’s so weird, but un changeable. what matters is what you think a gorgon looks like. well, waht do you all think a gorgon looks like? Hawke?

    • Well, to me (as you noted, being an avid mythology nerd) a gorgon will always be the three sisters–or, in fantasy, a race of monsters. Medusa is the character.

      So when I think gorgon, I think normal looking (perhaps even beautiful) woman, with serpents for hair. In that regard, I guess Percy Jackson is actually the closest my personal image of a gorgon has ever gotten to being on screen. 😀 How about you?

      On another note, I don’t know if I consider it “screwing it up” (Although the bull thing is…rather odd). Creatures and myth have been past down, borrowed from, and changed since humanity has told the stories–I see nothing wrong with continuing to adapt them, as long as we don’t forget where they come from.

      Okay, except what Final Fantasy X did. That was just WRONG. 😉

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